From 'gap' to map

12 September 2013

Antarctica was often described as the last place in the world to be mapped, long left blank and unknowable. But now you can sit at your desk, zoom in with Google Earth and find all sorts of things, including (of course) secret UFO facilities. The Age of Exploration may officially be over, but cartography has enjoyed a 21st century renaissance – we have moved on from the frozen polar expanse to mapping the brain, the human genome and even economic complexity.

Mapping also has a role in ongoing efforts to improve the links between research and policy. In a recent HC Coombs Policy Forum discussion paper, we argue that such an approach can help us to move on beyond simplistic arguments about the need for ‘more’ research or evidence in policy, to a more sophisticated evaluation of what we already have and what we might need in the future. We need to improve the evidence base that underpins discussions about ‘evidence-based’ policy.

Our report arises from a collaborative project with government, which in turn supports the recommendations of the recent ‘APS200’ report on the place of science in policy in the Australian Public Service (APS). As part of the Australian Government’s broader public service reform agenda, the APS200 project was designed to strengthen cross-government cooperation and the role of science in supporting more strategic and evidence-based policy.

The Australian Government spends almost $9 billion every year on research, science and innovation, and it is entirely reasonable to expect that at least some of this can be helpful to government in its own work. But despite this significant investment, there is persistent debate about the ‘gap’ or ‘chasm’ between researchers and policymakers.

So we set out to map the gap – to gather together for the first time different sets of publicly-available data on existing Australian Government investments and institutional arrangements that play some role in linking science and policy. (Following the APS200 report, we use the term ‘science’ but in its broadest sense, including the social sciences which clearly play an important role in policy.)

We also wanted to bring the academic literature to bear on this debate, for there is more than thirty years of work – on how research is actually used, on science policy and on reconciling supply and demand – that can also help. This literature tells us that research is used in many diverse ways – direct and indirect, constructive and less so – that more knowledge or evidence may not actually help in policy, and that where researchers are aiming to be useful, there are some simple principles to remember.

Starting with available information and mapping what we already have doesn’t presume a ‘right’ model – it leaves room for the diversity and complexity. For the first time, we also brought together data from across government, to allow for comparison across different departments and areas of policy, and for the sharing of best practice.

We found: • Over 20 agencies that play a role in linking research and policy • 20 in-house research units across 12 government departments • 7 Chief Scientists and 5 Chief Economists across 9 portfolios • 114 science and research programs across 11 portfolios, at least half of which have a direct role in linking research and policy • 242 advisory committees across 16 portfolios, of which 102 have a science/research function • Over 200 additional contract research projects/consultancies to Australian universities in 2011-12.

So if there is a gap or chasm, it is pretty crowded. Far from being a problem, this diversity may actually be crucial, supporting what Professor Alan Hayes from the Institute of Family Studies terms the ‘adaptive fitness’ of the links between research and government. But the question then becomes how to best use and evaluate what we already have, rather than just arguing for more.

A map prompts us to ask more sophisticated questions, such as: • Do we have the balance of investments and institutions right, within and across portfolios? • Do we know what is working well, and what isn’t? • Where should new investments be targeted? • And if I have a problem, how do I know which kind of intervention is most likely to be effective in addressing it?

These are primarily policy questions, and our report is designed to be useful for the APS, and to help strengthen the links between ‘science for policy’ and ‘policy for science’. But it can also help researchers seeking to understand and demonstrate the impact of their work in policy. Indeed, we suggest that future work might further develop the initial evidence base we have compiled, showing in more detail different kinds of engagement between researchers and government, and assessing the links between engagement and impact.

Just as it is important to remember that there is more to policy than evidence, it is also true that the map is not the destination. Maps are static and abstracted from the complex and dynamic world they represent. But, as they have for centuries, maps can help us to understand what we already have around us, and to better guide the way ahead.

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